Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

An Egyptian protester holds up a Koran while participating in a rally at Tahrir square in Cairo July 29, 2011. (MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY/REUTERS/MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY/REUTERS)
An Egyptian protester holds up a Koran while participating in a rally at Tahrir square in Cairo July 29, 2011. (MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY/REUTERS/MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY/REUTERS)

Islamists threaten to outmanoeuvre secularists in post-revolution Egypt Add to ...

There was a moment Friday in the Egyptian capital when the people's vaunted uprising brought to mind Tehran in 1979: Just when the left-wing secularists thought they had ousted the Shah, the Islamists ousted them.

Hundreds of thousands of ultra-religious Islamists packed this capital's central Tahrir Square in an unprecedented show of support for the creation of an Islamic republic, rather than the planned unity demonstration in collaboration with secularists. In doing so, they drove a stake through the heart of a united revolutionary movement that had brought together Egyptian Islamists and secularists, Muslims and Christians, and shared the goal of democratic elections and the punishment of the corrupt regime of Hosni Mubarak.

More related to this story

"The Islamists showed their true colours today," said Hisham Kassem, the former editor of the independent al-Masry al-Youm newspaper and one-time vice-president of the liberal el-Ghad Party. "From this day on, everyone will know these guys can't tolerate others' views. They've been pretending they can work with others," he said.

"This is a lot like Iran," said Saeed Rahnema, a left-wing activist in Tehran in the late 1970s and now professor of political science at York University in Toronto. "And it's only going to get worse. Once the Islamists start in like this, they're never going to let up."

As strong as the Islamist forces get in Egypt, however, it is unlikely the country will go the way of Iran, at least not in the foreseeable future, Prof. Rahnema said. For one thing, Egypt's Islamists have no central leadership the way Iran's Islamists had in Ayatollah Khomeini, the exiled Iranian cleric whose return ultimately led to the Shah of Iran's ouster.

For another, said Prof. Rahnema, "the army in Egypt is a separate entity. It's vital that it stay that way, so the system won't totally collapse" as it did in Iran. That's when the Islamists came to the fore.

But the prospect of something like Iran was very much on the minds of remnants of the secular youth movement that led Egypt's popular uprising in the spring, who were in Tahrir Square Friday. It was the largest protest in Egypt since the February departure of former president Mubarak and, overwhelmed by the Islamists' numbers and by the Islamists' stark religious agenda, the secularists walked out of the square and complained to the press that they had been deceived and would have no part of further joint protests with the Islamist groups.

Bulos Oweideh, a Coptic priest who sits on a joint revolutionary council that included both Islamists and secularists, shared the outrage. The Islamist hijacking of the demonstration, he said, was "contrary to what we had agreed."

"It was all supposed to be about Egypt, not about sharia or Islam," he told reporters.

Banners put in place in the wee hours of Friday morning proclaimed, "Islamic law is above the constitution," while chants used throughout the day in the square insisted "the people want to implement sharia" just as they once had chanted, back in February, "the people want the regime to go."

"We can live in an Egypt with the Muslim Brotherhood in government," said Father Bulos, "but not if they govern by sharia. This is not the Egypt we want."

Safwat Hegazi, spokesman for the fundamentalist Salafists, dismissed the complaints of the secularists. "There was no agreement," he said, referring to the concord said to have been reached between the two sides to avoid confrontation.

"If they [the secularists]don't want an Islamic state, they're free to go."

He challenged them: "If they're so sure they represent the people, let them see if they can fill a square with three- or four-million people. Show us," he said on the Al Jazeera (Egypt) television network.

"We are the people," he said defiantly. "This is an Islamic country."

Many fear that the schism in Egypt's revolutionary leadership is irreparable, and that the Islamists have emerged on top. "This is my worst nightmare," said a young businessman, a mosque-going Muslim who still wants a secular government. "I hoped we could avoid this."

"This could be just the shock the young secularists need to motivate them into taking real political action," said Mr. Kassem. "It's not at all clear the Islamists can get as much as 20 per cent of the popular vote."

"But the people are fed up with the never-ending protests," he said. "They just want to get on with the process of government."

"It's time the protesters grew up and got to work on it."

The secularists

Scattershot, immature, and now shocked.

The April 6 Movement is the country's best-known secular group in an extremely disorganized opposition. Created in 2008, the April 6 Youth Movement, as it was then known, was started with the aim of supporting various workers' movements in northern Egypt. It later adopted the cause of Khaled Said, a young Alexandrian beaten to death by police.

It was one of the group's founders, Asmaa Mahfouz, whose blog called on Egyptians to protest against the Mubarak regime on January 25 this year, the event that triggered the uprising.

Since the ouster of Mr. Mubarak, the group, which prided itself on its lack of leaders, has become even more diffused. Many of its young followers appear not to have been too interested in politics and in taking the revolt to the next stage - government.

Other secular groups such as the protest movement Kefaya (meaning Enough, it was more active from 2004 to 2006) and the liberal el-Ghad Party (it fielded the presidential candidacy of Ayman Nour in 2005) have modest followings and influence among the opposition.

They've been joined by such groups as el-Wasat, a progressive religious movement that broke from the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Free Egyptians Party, created in April by business tycoon Naguib Sawiris, largely for the benefit of Egypt's Coptic Christians.

All these groups seek free elections and most prefer the elections to be delayed so new parties will have time to organize themselves. Most are big on bringing Mr. Mubarak to justice and would like some kind of safeguard to make sure an Islamic government could not be voted into office.

The Islamists

Hungry for elections, averse to guidelines.

The Muslim Brotherhood is Egypt's largest and best organized Islamist movement. Its joining in Friday's dramatic call for the establishment of an Egyptian Islamic state was a major break from past policies.

In existence for 83 years, the organization has often been criticized by Islamic activists for being too moderate. The group renounced violence during the Anwar Sadat years and watched as many of its young militants broke away to form groups such as Islamic Jihad (members of which assassinated Sadat) and the country's second-largest Islamist movement, Gamaa Islamiya.

The Gamaa was infamous for its terror attacks in the 1990s against tourists and Christians, mostly in Upper Egypt. Hosni Mubarak's regime ruthlessly crushed the group's leaders and drove members underground. Gamaa Islamiya renounced terror earlier this year, shortly after Mr. Mubarak's ouster. It makes no secret of wanting an Islamic state.

The Salafists, the third-biggest Islamic force, are really a disparate number of small groups, all of whom adhere to the most fundamental form of Islam - following the ways of the faith's first adherents.

The Salafists appear to have been the group that drove Friday's mass demonstration to new heights of Islamist proclamations. Some believe they are punching way above their weight, but they appear to have struck a close relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood.

All three Islamist bodies want elections held soon and don't want any kind of constitutional guidelines established before the election of a new parliament, which they expect to dominate.

Patrick Martin

Follow on Twitter: @globepmartin

 

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories